Husband, Wives, and Stolen Paintings

This is one of the stranger art theft stories upon which I've ever stumbled

In late 1988, an alert clerk working at Christie’s in London, England, noticed three stolen paintings, including an obscure stolen 17th century Dutch painting, that were on the selling block.

Christie’s alerted the authorities, and detectives did a bit of provenance research of their own. They traced the paintings back to a man by the name of Peter Nixon of London, Ontario.

Peter Nixon, 58 at the time, moved to Canada from Scotland in the 1950s. He lived there with his wife Evelyn, 55, for 30 years. Though Peter and Evelyn traveled frequently, they lived a modest lifestyle. And while he earned money as both an art dealer and engineer, Peter displayed little signs of extravagance, driving a second-hand police car and dressing casually. Their neighbors thought them quiet and cordial.

It had to be shock to them, then, to discover that when Peter and Evelyn were in Britain for work in 1981 and 1982, Peter, apparently with his wife’s complicity, went about stealing 22 rare oil paintings worth an estimated $13 million from castles in England and Scotland. Then during further travels around the world, he would move the paintings through auctions in various locations in the U.S., Canada, and England.

By 1989, though, the police were hot on the Nixons' trail. They questioned Peter and his son, also named Peter, about 22 stolen paintings, including a Van Dyck and a John Constable (pictured in a portrait by Daniel Gardner above). Finally, in February of that year, the police made their move, breaking into the Nixons' quaint apartment.

There they found Peter and Evelyn, dead in a murder-suicide pact.

The Nixons knew that they could not hide their crimes any longer, and rather than face the consequences of certain prison time, they decided to end their lives.

It's incredibly rare, and to my knowledge unprecedented, for an art thief to decide to kill himself--and his wife--rather than roll the dice with the criminal justice system. In 1989, the penalties for the Nixons' crimes were not as steep as they are today, and they don't appear to have been part of any further criminal enterprise. It's unlikely that they would have died in jail. In fact, one would think that Peter could cop to the crimes and spare Evelyn jail sentence at all.

Perhaps they felt that by ending their lives they would ensure that they'd never be apart. Or maybe they wished to deflect any suspicion their crimes might have brought on their son. Both romantic motives, but also mere speculation.

There exists another question: why did they commit their crimes? Was it for money that they never seemed to spend? Was it the unusual case of mere thrill-seeking? This, too, remains a mystery, and the entire episode seems a more extensive--and darker--version of the story of John and Rita Alter, the New Mexico couple who stole a valuable de Kooning from the University of Arizona Art Museum four years earlier and kept it until they both had passed away. It was discovered in 2017 by an estate sale businessman who gave it back to the museum where it will ultimately again be displayed.

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